An animal-rights group has a new way to persuade consumers to give up meat: arguing that Jesus was a vegetarian and his followers should imitate him.

But, judging by the early returns, it looks as though it might be easier to turn loaves into fish and water into wine.People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, based in Reston, Va., and known for headline-grabbing photo opportunities, is waging a campaign to persuade leaders of Christian faiths to counsel their members to shun meat.

More than 400 Catholic bishops, archbishops and cardinals as well as evangelical Protestant leaders Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts have received letters from the group's vegetarian coordinator, Bruce Friedrich.

"I am writing to ask that you encourage your diocese to follow Jesus by adopting a vegetarian diet throughout Lent and beyond," he wrote to the Catholic leaders.

The timing could not be better as Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday, when Catholics must abstain from meat. They are also obliged to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, a period of sacrifice and reflection leading up to Easter.

"If anything, PETA is a master of timing," said Steve Kopperud, senior vice president at the American Feed Industry Association.

Friedrich's big argument for forgoing meat is a disputed claim that Jesus was an Essene, a Jewish sect that Friedrich says avoided meat, and that early Christians did not eat meat.

"The stream of meat darkens the light of the spirit," he wrote, quoting St. Basil, in the letter to Catholic bishops.

"It's a kooky idea," said biblical scholar Joseph Fitzmyer, a Jesuit theologian and professor emeritus at Catholic University in Washington. "There's nothing in the New Testament that would suggest he was a vegetarian," Fitzmyer said.